International Day of Friendship by Laurie Batzel

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“A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity.”

-Proverbs 17:17

As we move through the various seasons of life, it is rare to find a friendship that moves, grows and stays with you throughout all the changes such as moving, changing careers, marriage, parenthood, etc. I’m extremely fortunate to have experienced such a friendship. 

CJ and I met the first week of college. I was a dance major and while walking through the theater, I was accosted by a tap on my shoulder. A friendly voice piped up behind me and I whirled around to see one of the girls I remembered from our dorm orientation. 

“Hi, I’m CJ.” She introduced herself with a beaming smile. “I was wondering if you could help me out with something. You’re from the South, right?”

I never considered my Virginia accent to be distinctly southern, but I supposed at a Pennsylvania college it probably stuck out a bit more than it had back home.

“I’m from Virginia.” I said, wondering where this was going. Small talk with new people was never easy for me, and by the end of that first week, I was more than a little overwhelmed. If CJ noticed, she never let on. She grabbed me by the arm like we had known each other for years and sat me down at the table in the theater’s “Green Room,” the place where performers gather before and during shows. 

“I’m auditioning for the Fall Mainstage play, ‘Steel Magnolias.’” She said. Tapping at the script in front of her, she flashed me that smile again. “If you have time, could you listen to my accent and let me know if it sounds right?”

As I found out that day, CJ was one of those people to whom it was very hard to say no. She had a way of ingratiating herself with people instantly, even someone as introverted and awkward as myself. After an hour of running lines, I had officially made a friend. Over four years of college, not only did CJ and I become very good friends, but through her, I met several other girls who would eventually become my roommates when we all lived together for our last year in undergraduate school. Friends who after years of sharing triumphs, sorrows, loves and loss became more like sisters. For the first time in my life, I knew what it was like to be part of a group where I could be myself, my bookworm, musical theater nerd self, and be accepted and loved. When graduation rolled around, I couldn’t help wondering if that feeling would last beyond the walls of our little on-campus Brigadoon.

While some of these friendships drifted with time and distance, I was pleasantly surprised to find that CJ, myself and two of the other girls kept in fairly regular contact in the next few years. Through phone calls, emails and social media, we were able to maintain and strengthen the bond between us. After the tumultuous years of the early twenties, maturity and long-term relationships found us putting down roots, several of us not too far from the college where we had met. As CJ and I lived only an hour apart in central and Northeastern Pennsylvania respectively, marriage and motherhood actually brought us closer together. We took our babies to children’s shows at the theater where we had first met, had standing dinner dates at her husband’s restaurant, and a message stream on Facebook that never went for more than a few days without a new anecdote about potty training or decorating tips.

None of us were prepared for what was to come next.

CJ and I fell pregnant with our second babies-both boys-the summer of 2012 and were due within one month of each other. Going through pregnancy at the same time as her, as well as our other close friend who had given birth that Spring, only made the experience more precious. We shared pictures of our growing bellies, called each other after appointments, and talked baby names over lunch dates. About a month after CJ’s son was born, we gathered at CJ’s house to squeal over our little ones and commiserate on the sleep deprivation accompanying them. CJ mentioned that she had a lump, which was probably just a clogged milk duct. Since all of us were nursing at the time, it was just another thing we all had in common.

Two weeks later, the news came. Not a clogged duct, but a tumor. A rare and aggressive form of cancer that had started to spread, but fortunately had been diagnosed in time to classify as Stage Two. CJ dealt with the diagnosis with her usual grace and humor, cropping her enviable long hair in preparation for the chemo-related hair loss and giving her tumor a nickname-Maleficent, from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. All of us were stunned and felt utterly helpless. While our other friend could always be counted on to lift CJ’s spirits with her trademark brassy humor, my inadequate social graces seemed even more glaring than usual. When CJ mentioned she was worried about having to abruptly wean her eight-week-old-son with a sensitive digestive track to expensive formula, I blurted out the first thing that came to my head.

“I’ll pump for you, if you want.” I said. My offer was sincere, and yet as soon as I said it, I was terrified that it had been the wrong thing to say. I wanted more than anything to help her, but…was this pushing the boundaries of even a decades long friendship like ours?

To my relief, she was extremely thankful for the offer. Not that there is anything wrong with formula feeding and we knew she would have to supplement at some point, but CJ said at the time that there had been so little in her control after the initial diagnosis, and being given some choices, even about something as small as what went into her baby’s bottle, made her feel a little bit more empowered at such a stressful time. So, we began a new routine. I added extra pumping sessions in between nursing and pumping breastmilk for my son and once a month, I had a cooler of frozen solid milk packed with dry ice and ready to make the trip down to the Lehigh Valley. Even in the midst of chemotherapy, surgery and radiation, CJ’s house was always beautifully decorated for every season with scented candles and curtains she made herself. We would drink tea, watch our children play and talk about books, college memories, plans for the future. The milk I brought was a small gesture; the best I could do for a friend who had given me so much. In the end, that time together proved to be the real gift.

In my book, With My Soul, the main character, Willa Jane has been abandoned by her ex-husband and left to raise a new baby in a small town in the 1940s-an era when single parenthood was not made any easier by the social conventions and attitudes of the day. She bonds with another single mother, an African-American widow named Joy. When Joy is diagnosed with breast cancer, she struggles to feed her four-month-old son. Willa Jane offers to serve as a sort of wet nurse, an offer which would easily have violated the Jim Crow laws in place in their state of North Carolina at the time. Yet Willa Jane is unable to watch her friend suffer, and in her time helping Joy, it is Willa Jane who receives the greatest blessing-she learns the meaning and impact of true friendship that transcends any earthly barrier.

Almost two years after CJ’s diagnosis, she, our other friend, Kate, and I had gotten together for an outing of lunch and shopping. I was due any day with my third baby, and she was weakened from treatments for the cancer which had gone into remission, then returned almost immediately and spread to stage IV. Both of us required frequent rest breaks and during one of our sit-downs, she turned to me with that smile.

“You know, a neighbor will let you borrow a cup of sugar every now and then, but only a true friend will give you the milk out of their own body,” she half-joked. 

I laughed, awkward because of the situation and because at five thousand months pregnant, the slightest giggle can result in an immediate need to rush to the restroom. We headed back to our cars after that, CJ gave me a tight hug and a rub to my gigantic belly for luck. 

It was the last time we would see each other this side of heaven. One month after I gave birth to my third son, CJ went in the hospital and never came out. The loss of my dear friend is something from which I will never fully recover. Writing With My Soul was in no small part my own, introspective way of processing the grief and pain. Through Willa Jane and Joy, I allow myself to relive those days with CJ, drinking tea, loving on our babies, laughing through the tears and the fear. If readers of this story can relate to the love, loss, and friendships they have experienced in their own lives, then I feel I will at last have been able to say one final “thank you” to the person who taught me the true meaning of friendship.

Thanks, Ceej. I’ll keep passing the Joy.

Laurie Batzel’s book, With My Soul, will be released in September.

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